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Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) directed by Ron Howard

The latest Star Wars spin-off

This origin story for Han Solo, one of the main protagonists in the original Star Wars trilogy and The Force Awakens, is set in a galaxy where various criminal gangs fight over coaxium, a highly valuable source of fuel. It begins as Solo (played by Alden Ehrenreich) and his lover Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) make a frantic escape from their homeworld of Corellia, and from the clutches of servitude to one such gang. When they reach the local spaceport, they bribe their way past the Imperial checkpoint with a small phial of the aforementioned substance. However, as they pass through the gate, Qi'ra is seized by their pursuers and the pair become separated. Solo manages to escape capture by signing up to work for the Imperial forces in their quest to bring order to the galaxy.

On the field of battle, he befriends a gang of criminals led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and attempts to persuade them of his worth as a pilot. However, they refuse his offer and decide to turn him over to their superiors for insubordination. He is then thrown into a pit to be torn apart by a creature known as “The Beast”. This beast, however, turns out to be a certain Wookiee named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). He manages to persuade this anger-prone, hairy creature to partner up with him so that they can break out of their hole. As Beckett and his cohorts beat an escape, their pilot Rio Daurant (voiced by Jon Favreau) spots the pair on the run and suggests that it might be good to take a strong Wookiee along with them. In the end, they are persuaded to recruit both for their next mission: to steal a huge shipment of coaxium from a train on the icy planet Vandor.

Their attempted heist ends in failure as they are attacked by a gang of marauders, resulting in two members of Beckett’s crew being killed. When Solo tries to escape with the shipment by using his ship to lift it on cables, the marauders attempt to tug it away from him. Ultimately, he has to jettison the haul in order to avoid being dragged into crashing into the face of a mountain. Afterwards, a furious Beckett explains that the shipment was intended to be delivered to ruthless crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) of the Crimson Dawn, who might well kill them for their failure. They decide to visit Vos, explain the situation and hope that he generously grants them a second chance.

At Vos’s flying palace, Solo has a surprise run-in with Qi'ra. While the pair are evidently overjoyed to see each other, it turns out that Qi'ra is both Vos’s lieutenant and, seemingly, his lover. Beckett and Solo tell their employers about their failure, resulting in Vos asking them to persuade him why he shouldn’t have them done away with. Solo manages to use his charm to convince him that he can pull off a second heist in order to retrieve a large quantity of unrefined coaxium from the mining planet Kessel. In order to get a ship suitable for the operation, they visit a local smuggler named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Solo attempts to win it in a card game by wagering his own ship. However, Lando ultimately wins by cheating. Beckett saves the day by managing to persuade Lando and his navigator L3-37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) to fly them on their mission, in exchange for 25% of the cut.

With all of that business sorted, they take off in the aforementioned ship - named the Millennium Falcon - to attempt their perilous mission.

Watch a trailer:

A dishearteningly ordinary origin story

Coming as it does just six months after the critically acclaimed but highly divisive The Last Jedi, not to mention dogged by by a replacement of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller with Ron Howard partway through filming, general hopes were not high for this particular Star Wars spinoff/prequel. Advance reviews have generally been mixed to moderately positive; most have noted that it hangs together better than expected considering the change of directors, while also criticising it for its overly predictable feel.

To call Solo: A Star Wars Story predictable, however, would be to somewhat miss the point - it’s a prequel featuring one of the franchise’s most beloved characters, after all. We already know that the titular Solo will win out against the odds in the end, and that Lando and Chewbacca will survive alongside him. We’re all going in, expectations duly moderated, craving an unashamedly enjoyable popcorn ride. Unfortunately, even on this level, it fails to hit the mark.

Even the worst of the Star Wars films (the first two prequels, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones) offered an imaginative visual feast of vast sci-fi vistas in the manner of a space opera novel cover sprung to life. Unfortunately, Solo just descends into a dismal visual murk right from the start and, for the most part, stays there. The colour palette heavily leans towards greys and browns. Much of it is so dimly lit that it’s difficult to make out exactly what’s going on, especially considering the film’s hyperactive pacing and tendency towards throwing the camera around. I struggled to fully make out Alden Ehrenreich’s face for at least his first 10 minutes of screen time. While the blend of CGI and practical effects is technically impeccable throughout (as it should be, considering that the film cost a reported $250 million), the visuals don’t draw the eye so much as make it feel disheartened and wishing it was focussing somewhere else.

The lead, Alden Ehrenreich, is another issue. Okay, so he’s not a bad actor by any means, but in lieu of Harrison Ford’s effortless cool he comes across more like that guy who tries very hard to do the same and thus falls flat on his face. “There is no try” as Yoda once said. There’s never a sense that he’s generating much real camaraderie or chemistry with the rest of the cast, the possible exception being Woody Harrelson. Mind you, the always-watchable Harrelson could generate chemistry with pile of rocks, so that’s no real achievement. Another so-so piece of casting comes in the form of Emilia Clarke. While she’s undeniably stunning to look at (in the shots where you can see her clearly), she just comes across like Daenerys Targaryen dropped into the Star Wars universe. It was easy to buy the coupling of the charmingly cocky Harrison Ford and the sweetly snarky Carrie Fisher in the original trilogy. Here, however, the plummy Clarke comes across like she’s well above going with this particular Mr. Try Hard incarnation of the character. While Donald Glover is likeable enough as Lando Calrissian, one is left with the feeling that his character is mostly superfluous and has been shoehorned into the plot in order to provide a convenient way to establish the relationship between himself and Solo, as seen later in the timeline in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Occasional good moments

L3-37 in Solo: A Star Wars Story

To be fair, Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t entirely bereft of fun. The train heist sequence provides a dose of hair-raising sustained excitement which shines like a diamond amongst the visual mud. Harrelson, as I mentioned before, is fabulous as Solo’s rugged, grizzled employer. L3-37, however, is the highlight amongst a mostly bland roster of characters. Voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she’s a plucky female robot who has unashamedly thrown off the shackles of conformity and seeks to bring the same message to others of her droid kind. Her presence adds a welcome dash of pure anarchic creativity which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a pity that she doesn’t have more screen time. There are a few nice little Easter Eggs here and there, including a fun gag involving Chewbacca getting rather peeved at that holographic board game aboard the Millennium Falcon. Darth Maul (one of the few worthwhile aspects of the The Phantom Menace) also pops up briefly at one point.

While Solo: A Star Wars Story isn’t outright bad, it’s a rather lacklustre and uninspiring action flick which happens to be tied in with a phenomenally popular space opera franchise. It’s definitely the weakest of the four recent Star Wars instalments. Perhaps it’s main problem is that, in a sense, its story has already been told - in a much more colourful and engaging fashion - as Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s really no excuse for Disney to churn out such a drab and ordinary affair, especially in relation to one of the Star Wars universe’s most iconically cool characters. Still, if you’re a fan then I’m sure you’ll dutifully go and see it anyway.

Runtime: 135 mins

Dir: Ron Howard

Script: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan, based on characters created by George Lucas

Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (voice), Jon Favreau (voice)

Rating: ☆☆1/2

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